Back to the land – an agriculture graduate’s experiences in farming and rural living in the dry zone
By Ranjit Mulleriyawa
Forty four years ago, my wife and I decided to take to a life of farming and rural living on a two hectare plot of land in the dry zone (in Mahiyangana). This was no week-end picnic, nor was it an academic exercise in participant observation initiated and sustained by external donor funding. It was to be our livelihood.
Our decision to become farmers was frowned upon by the tradition bound society of the day. Convention demanded that a graduate endowed with a Masters’ degree in agriculture and post graduate research experience at a prestigious international research institute should seek employment in the public sector or University. Living the life of a goviya, was simply unheard of! Nevertheless, we persisted in implementing our decision. Why did we decide to become farmers? For a variety of reasons : a basic love for farming and rural living, the spirit of adventure- to blaze a new trail; to learn the practical farming skills which a Univ education does not provide; above all, we were driven by a strong gut feeling that a simple life was the key to sensible living.
We built our own house using unbaked clay bricks and having a thatch of Illuk grass. This was delightfully cool. There was no pipe borne water, electricity, telephone or TV. We bathed in the Mahaweli Ganga (barely 100 meters away from the farm), drank water from an open well in the front yard, and had plenty of home grown food, peace of mind and good health. It was a life relatively free of stress. We were not rich (in material terms- we had hardly any bank balance to speak of), we earned enough money to meet our essential needs, and we were content. Yet, this simple life was worth more to us than a pot of gold. Living close to nature, interacting with peasant farmers in the area, we learnt many useful values and attributes: Patience, tolerance, humility, sharing, love, faith, hope, courage and survival with dignity. They also taught us many useful lessons in agriculture: The need to recognize, appreciate and value indigenous knowledge.
Here’s how it came about:
Our paddy field consisted of two plots – one sandy, and the other clayey- a typical paddy soil. The normal practice in land preparation (prior to sowing paddy) is to shave off all weed growth on the bunds (niyaras) and plough the weeds into the soil. We noticed that the peasant farmers in the area would NOT resort to this normal practice in their sandy fields. They would instead carefully collect weed growth on the bunds, and burn it. We asked them why they did so. “If you plough in these weeds, your rice seedlings will die after 4-6 weeks”, they claimed. This did not seem to make sense to us. Theory teaches you that sandy soils benefit most from organic matter, and these weeds could provide valuable organic matter. So we decided to prepare our fields the ‘scientific way’ by incorporating the weeds into the soil. Six weeks later, we were horrified to see our rice seedlings dying in patches. What the peasant farmers predicted had come true. Panic gripped us. What do we do now? “You can still save part of your crop by draining the field until the soil cracks. Thereafter, you must resort to alternate wetting and drying the field”, was their advice. This time we listened to the farmers, and it worked! This was our first lesson in humility, and the value of indigenous knowledge. All the academic knowledge imparted by the International Rice Research Institute proved inadequate when it came to site specific land use.
A few seasons later, we learnt another valuable lesson – the limits of new technology. Fresh from our baptism in green revolution agriculture at the International Rice Research Institute, (IRRI), we were among the first farmers in Sri Lanka to grow the much acclaimed ‘miracle rice’ (IR8). This rice variety yielded three to four times more than local varieties. One season, we had an exceptionally good crop having a potential yield of 130-140 bu/acre (6.5-7 tons per hectare). Shortly before harvest, in the month of August, we experienced very heavy rainfall- over 250mm of rain within a period of one week. The first gusts of wind and rain flattened the rice plants. More incessant rains, and the rice grains began to germinate on the panicles (ears) itself. Threshing was impossible because the earthen threshing floor was too wet. Within a few days our entire harvest was a steaming mass of fermenting grain. Seeing our plight, Punchi Banda, the village cynic exclaimed “Wediya kanda gihin ageeranayak heduna wage neda?!” (This is like suffering from indigestion due to over eating). That remark really hurt. We asked Punchi Banda how he had coped with the nasty weather…. After all, he too was a rice farmer. “We grow indigenous rice varieties having inbuilt seed dormancy. They don’t germinate for two or three months after maturity. Besides, our rice produces much less grain, so we can easily thresh it by beating the panicles on a log, and we can spread it out to air dry inside our houses. Your harvest is so big; you will need a huge shed to dry your paddy”. He was absolutely right. He taught us another important lesson: Proponents of new technology must think through the entire process of technology transfer. Introducing high yielding varieties is useless unless farmers have the means of processing, and handling the increased grain yield.
Farewell to farming
We operated our little farm for ten years (1969-78) until changes in agricultural policy following political change resulted in a flood of cheap imported food from India. Unable to compete with these imports, and lacking the resilience of the peasant farmer, we were compelled to close down the farm and seek employment elsewhere. However, that grass root level experience in farming was a defining moment in our lives. We resolved to spend the rest of our life working with farmers and spotlighting problems of small farmers through a number of NGOs.